Seven years ago, Nigel started a tradition at age eight that we still observe today. Every Veterans Day, when I get home from work (because I don’t work for the postal service), we go to our local cemetery “to pay our respects,” Nigel says. He didn’t say that the first few years we went (because he couldn’t), but I’m sure the sentiment was always there. It was his idea, after all.
From a young age, Nigel has been interested in military history. He has books on at least eight major wars, does research online, and watches the History Channel. It’s become somewhat of an obsession. But even before he got his books and computer, he had a deep, abiding respect for soldiers. He knows that his father was in the Army, as well as his grandfather. Two of his great-grandfathers were Marines who served in World War II. And he had two great-great-grandfathers who fought in World War I. But long before he knew any of this, he came to me on Veterans Day and asked if we could go to the cemetery.
I remember that day, sunny, but cool. I marveled at his request – “Can we go to the cemetery?” – worded so well at a time when he still had great difficulty with sentence structure and correct pronoun usage. Ordinarily, he might have asked, “You go to the cemetery?” because he constantly said “you” when he meant “I.” But this was clearly to be a joint venture.
“Sure,” I told him, wondering what he had in mind. “Go get your jacket on.” And he ran off to do so.
Our little town is one of the older towns in southern Oregon, and our cemetery has tombstones from the 1800s in it. As we strolled through the entrance gate, I glanced up at the sunlight filtering through the trees, took a deep breath, and began leisurely browsing the gravesites. Nigel’s gait, however, was more purposeful. He strode down the main walkway and made a beeline for the military marker closer to the rear of the cemetery. I quickened my pace to keep up.
As we neared the stone and metal memorial marker, I noticed two men seated on a bench next to it. I hoped that Nigel wouldn’t start climbing on the five-foot-high marker. In those days, I had no idea what to expect from him. But I needn’t have worried.
He stood in front of it and saluted.
My breath caught in my throat, but I had to quickly regain my composure because one of the men had asked Nigel a question, something about having family in the military. And Nigel, characteristically of that time, was not responding. I walked over and briefly laid out the family history.
“I was in Vietnam,” the man said.
Nigel immediately turned to him. He made eye contact with a complete stranger, and then Nigel began to slowly unzip his own jacket. Again, I wondered what to expect. I stood at the ready, not sure if I’d be translating or intervening or explaining. I’ve had to do so much of that over the years, in so many situations.
Nigel unzipped his jacket down to his abdomen, and then slowly, deliberately, using both hands he pulled his jacket to the sides of his chest, a la Superman, to reveal his shirt. It was green camouflage. When I had sent him to get his jacket before leaving the house, unbeknownst to me, he had changed shirts. And he reverently showed it to the veteran in his presence.
“Ohh!” the man exclaimed, chuckling. “You wanna be a soldier too?”
“Well, I bet you’ll be a good one.”
I thanked the man and bid him a good day, and Nigel and I began to walk home through the filtered sunlight, fallen leaves crunching beneath our feet. I put my arm around him and told him that I was proud of him for being so respectful. And I knew, without a doubt, that whether he ever enters the military or not, Nigel would always be a good soldier.